So much of the good that Deandre Ayton showed this season was lost in all the weird, off-court issues from early season suspension, to nagging injuries to the league shutdown from a pandemic.
All in all, Ayton played only 30 of a possible 65 games so far this season, and who knows how many games are yet to play. The league feels confident they can bubble wrap their teams in Orlando or Las Vegas to finish some semblance of a season and the whole playoffs, saving almost a billion in revenue that’s currently at risk.
A team like the Suns, who sit 13th in a Conference that sends on the top eight to the playoffs, might only play handful of games in the Washington Generals kind of role to help their opponent get into playoff condition.
So, Ayton’s excellent sophomore year will become mostly forgotten outside small pockets of dedicated Suns fans and a handful of national media who watched enough tape of non-playoff teams.
I won’t regale you with statistics and small peer groups of 21-year-olds who have posted 19 points, 12 rebounds and almost two blocks per game while finishing among the top ten in field goal percentage allowed to his direct opponent.
What’s important is that Ayton, in a league where center is passé despite every team having two or more, showed that he has the feet, quickness and body control to defend like a big forward from the rim to the perimeter. And he did it without a lot of fanfare.
In fact, Ayton simply appears to enjoy playing defense. While we’re all focused on his lack of long range shooting on offense and his lack of getting to the free throw line despite being the biggest, quickest guy on the court, he’s just quietly becoming a net-plus because of his work the other end.
Unfortunately, the YouTubers don’t make highlight reels of defense-only plays, and I’m not smart or patient enough to do it myself. So let’s settle for watching one of Ayton’s better games this year — against rookie classmate Luka Doncic, in fact.
In this game against Dallas, Ayton had a season-high 31 points on only 15 shots, with a block and nine rebounds in only 29 minutes of play as the Suns absolutely shellacked Doncic’s Mavericks by 29 in Dallas.
I know that traditional, stand-only-in-the-middle centers are considered dinosaurs. No one wants guys like Rudy Gobert or Wendell Carter Jr. or Steven Adams anymore.
They want stretch-y fives like Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, Jaren Jackson Jr. or even Aron Baynes.
But teams also want a switchable defender who can take on a guard outside, who can also protect the rim and defend in the post and rebound the ball, and who can score more than they surrender to their matchup. Ayton does all that.
Now what if, just what if maybe, Ayton flips a switch and becomes a three point shooter during this pandemic or during next off-season? What if he takes it seriously, gets up a 1,000 threes a day, and adds that to his arsenal?
Back when Amare Stoudemire had to take a year off for his microfracture surgery, he taught himself to take and make jumpers to keep defenses honest (in today’s world, he’d have taught himself threes). He knew, after his 2004-05 breakout, that teams would simply start sagging off his picks to defend the roll. He needed a reliable jumper to keep them honest. So he learned it, and delivered his best season ever in 2006-07.
Now Ayton has months of quarantine during this pandemic. He certainly has a hoop in his backyard. I hope he’s decided it’s time to learn how to shoot the threes better. He probably has a bunch of his family with him who can rebound the balls to help keep him in rhythm.
And now that the practice facility is open — the one at Madhouse on McDowell while TSRA is under construction — Ayton can start using Suns staff to help him with rebounds.
While the facilities are open, it’s not a free for all. Each player is required to train only one on one, with just one other staffer. No coaches are allowed yet, and no scrimmaging together quite yet. It’s just shooting drills and work outs for now. There’s tons of symptom checking and washing and cleaning and such. And players are encouraged to stay away if they feel any untoward symptoms.
I recommend Ayton shoot 1,000 threes a day during this shutdown, so that when play resumes he feels so comfortable taking threes he doesn’t hesitate to hoist them up.
Here he is practicing them in January of this year.
At this point, it’s just a mental block. A fear that he won’t make it. And he still had some form issues. And the shot is a bit flat.
Nothing 1,000 shots a day can’t help.